Virginia Supreme Court upholds weapons ban at gun rally

Photo of the back of a shirt won by one of the attendees of a "God. Family. Guns." rally held in Richmond on Dec. 9, 2019
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — UPDATE (6:55 p.m.):

The Virginia Supreme Court has upheld Gov. Ralph Northam's state of emergency banning weapons on the grounds of the state capitol building during a planned gun rally this coming Monday.

Justices issued their decision late Friday, rejecting an appeal from the Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America and upheld a lower court ruling that found that the governor has the authority under state law to take action related to "the safety and welfare" of the state.

State officials had asked the court to uphold the ban.

In her written decision, Judge Joi Taylor cited rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts that found the Second Amendment right to bear arms is not unlimited. Because of that, she wrote, the gun-rights groups would not "suffer an irreparable harm" sufficient to justify the injunction.

That ruling came hours after the FBI in Maryland announced the arrest of three men who they said were linked to a violent white supremacist group known as The Base. The three men were believed to be planning to attend the rally in Richmond, according to a law enforcement official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.

Police also arrested three Georgia men linked to The Base on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and participating in a criminal street gang.

The Base, a collective of hardcore neo-Nazis that operate as a paramilitary organization, has proclaimed war against minority communities within the United States and abroad, the FBI has said. Unlike other extremist groups, it's not focused on promulgating propaganda — instead the group aims to bring together highly skilled members to train them for acts of violence.

Its organizers recruit fellow white supremacists online — particularly seeking out veterans because of their military training — use encrypted chat rooms and train members in military-style camps in the woods, according to experts who track extremist groups.

The group, which has the motto “learn, train, fight,” brings together white supremacists with varying ideologies.

The arrests only added to rising fears that Monday’s rally could quickly devolve into violence, with thousands of protesters planning to descend on Virginia's capital, and become a repeat of the 2017 white nationalist rally when a man drove his car into counter-protesters in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist.

Virginia's solicitor general, Toby Heytens, argued at Thursday's hearing that the governor was well within his authority to declare the state of emergency and ban weapons after law enforcement identified "credible evidence" that armed out-of-state groups planned to come to Virginia with the possible intention of participating in a "violent insurrection."

David Browne, an attorney for the gun-rights groups, argued that prohibiting rallygoers from carrying guns would violate their Second Amendment right to bear arms and their First Amendment right to free speech. Browne said carrying guns is a form of symbolic speech.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League — the gun-rights group sponsoring Monday's rally — called the judge's ruling “mind-boggling."

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A gun-rights group has filed an emergency appeal of a judge's ruling upholding the Virginia governor's ban on firearms at a pro-gun rally that's expected to draw thousands of gun activists to the state Capitol on Monday.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America sought an injunction against the ban, but Judge Joi Taylor ruled Thursday that Gov. Ralph Northam has the authority under state law to take action related to "the safety and welfare" of the state. The group's lawyers then turned to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

“Without relief from this court, petitioners and thousands of other rally participants will be irreparably denied their right to bear arms,” the groups' attorneys argue in their appeal.

It was not immediately clear when the court would hear the appeal.

In her written decision, Taylor cited rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts that found the Second Amendment right to bear arms is not unlimited. Because of that, she wrote, the gun-rights groups would not "suffer an irreparable harm" sufficient to justify the injunction.

The judge's ruling came hours after the FBI in Maryland announced the arrest of three men who they said were linked to a violent white supremacist group known as The Base. The three men were believed to be planning to attend the rally in Richmond, according to a law enforcement official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.

Police also arrested three Georgia men linked to The Base, on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and participating in a criminal street gang. Details of the case have been sealed by a judge, Floyd County police Sgt. Chris Fincher told the AP on Friday. He identified them as Luke Austin Lane of Floyd County, Michael Helterbrand of Dalton, and Jacob Kaderli of Dacula.

Virginia's solicitor general, Toby Heytens, argued at Thursday's hearing that the governor was well within his authority to declare the state of emergency and ban weapons after law enforcement identified "credible evidence" that armed out-of-state groups planned to come to Virginia with the possible intention of participating in a "violent insurrection."

David Browne, an attorney for the gun-rights groups, argued that prohibiting rallygoers from carrying guns would violate their Second Amendment right to bear arms and their First Amendment right to free speech. Browne said carrying guns is a form of symbolic speech.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League — the gun-rights group sponsoring Monday's rally — called the judge's ruling “mind-boggling."

Northam applauded the ruling in a statement.

“I took this action to protect Virginians from credible threats of violence,” he said. “These threats are real — as evidenced by reports of neo-Nazis arrested this morning after discussing plans to head to Richmond with firearms.”

Virginia senators were debating a package of gun-control bills as the court challenges developed.

The Democrat-led Senate advanced legislation limiting handgun purchases to once a month, requiring universal background checks on gun purchases, and allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks and other areas. The measures largely passed along partisan lines and will now go to the House for consideration.

Democrats said they were reasonable measures that would improve public safety while respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners. They said the public had made clear by voting for Democrats in recent elections that new gun laws were needed.

"The citizens in this last two elections have spoken,” said Democratic Sen. Dave Marsden.

Republicans decried the legislation as an assault on the Second Amendment. They said the bill was aimed at appeasing special interest groups and donors such as Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg. GOP senators said the new laws would entrap innocent people and do nothing to stop bad actors.

"This may be what you think is safety, but it is not,” said Republican Sen. Bill Stanley.

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Associated Press reporters Alan Suderman in Richmond; Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland; and Mike Balsamo in Washington in contributed to this report.

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